If Judge Brett Cullum wrote The Book of Brett, it would be too saucy for the American public.
Sex, drugs, stolen money and martinis. Family can really test your faith.
I struggle with this one like a Biblical hero faced with some kind of test of faith. On the one hand The Book of Daniel is compelling and smart, a rare breed of television show that establishes rich characters and gives them endless conflict to face. On the other hand, it feels overstuffed and contrived—like it's trying so very hard to be Six Feet Under or American Beauty without the good creative graces of those far superior projects. For NBC it was a daring move to green light a series about a pill-popping priest with a dysfunctional family who talked with a vision of Jesus regularly. Then when the predictable protests from the conservative Christians came in, the network kowtowed to their demands and canceled it after only four episodes. They were tempted by the possibility of having a critically lauded series, but lost faith when political pressure forced them to pull it from the schedule. The Book of Daniel -The Complete Series feels more like a magazine than a full fledged book at only eight episodes, but it does make fascinating viewing of the "brilliant but canceled" variety.
Aidan Quinn (An Early Frost, Legends of the Fall) is Reverend Daniel Webster of the Episcopalian church, a good man who has visible flaws. He's addicted to Vicodin, and has enormous trouble with family issues. Under his own roof : his daughter (Allison Pill, Pieces of April) is caught dealing drugs, one son (Christian Campbell, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical) is gay, and the other adopted one is hopelessly obsessed with a girl whose parents hate him (Ivan Shaw, an Asian character actor with various television roles such as in All My Children), and his wife (Susanna Thompson, Dragonfly) is an alcoholic who brings on an endless parade of martinis to swill. Add to all of this: Rev. Webster's father (James Rebhorn, Meet the Parents) is a bishop who is having an affair with one of Daniel's superiors (Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream), his brother-in-law ran off with three million dollars of church money and is found naked in a motel with unspecified items shoved up his posterior, Daniel has to deal with the mob to get the stolen money back, the brother-in-law's widow (Cheryl White) is shacking up with her late husband's mistress, and his congregation brings him a never-ending stream of crucial life events to counsel them through. Oh yeah, and how could I forget this? Daniel sees and talks to Jesus (Garrett Dillahunt, The 4400), who offers sage advice such as "Life is hard" at opportune moments (usually when Webster is about to pop a pill).
As you can tell from the synopsis, there's an overflowing bounty of plots. That's the rub with The Book of Daniel—it took on far too much to ever feel slightly believable. Sure, the clergy are real people with issues we all take on in our lives. But the good Reverend faces every problem known to modern man, and sees Jesus as well? This show has difficulty focusing because it is providing too much dysfunction to ever be functional. Is that an oxymoron? Yes, but it's true in this case. If Daniel Webster had half these problems, the series would seem cohesive, but at this level of ridiculous conflict, the drama becomes accidentally comical in a broad sense. It's a case of too much of a good thing with all these subplots, and they force the black comedy to feel labored, which seems at odds with the ultimate vision. The Book of Daniel wants to be smart and effortless, but it seems calculated and cloying with the scripts trying far too hard to be revelatory. The dialogue is written well, but there's way too much on this plate.
The one virtue that saves the soul of The Book of Daniel is the cast. Aidan Shaw and Ellen Burstyn head up an immaculate assembly of impressively divine actors. They give the standout performances you'd expect from two esteemed veterans, but they are not alone and are surrounded by equally capable if not as seasoned actors. You couldn't ask for more from the thespians, and they hold the series together throughout the eight episodes featured in this set. Even if the lines and situations seem over the top, they manage to find the truth in character (even the actor portraying Jesus), which makes the show a joy to watch. The cast had a lot of faith in the series, and it must have been crushing to have only gone eight episodes. The ironic thing is the series gets better as the episodes move forward; The Book of Daniel was just finding its groove when it was struck down and cast out.
What the hell was NBC thinking? The Book of Daniel belongs on cable, and its admirable qualities are out of sync with current successful public programming. It's a quirky character piece and a dark comedy featuring a religious figure as the lead. The whole depiction of Jesus as a character was an issue from the start. The American Family Association immediately railed against the show, and began protesting and pressuring the advertisers. Not only was The Book of Daniel mocking religion, but it also supported gay issues and offered lots of premarital sex. The cancellation of the show seemed a victory for the conservative values group, but the Friday night slot didn't help garner ratings. A hip irreverent show like this needs an audience at home, and most viewers who would enjoy the edgy drama would be out on that night. The network created a "perfect storm" scenario to bring their own show down. Fans of the show had hoped a cable outlet would pick it up after cancellation, but this set seems to be the last word in The Book of Daniel.
The Book of Daniel—The Complete Series gathers together four episodes that made it on the air, as well as four shows that did not get scheduled during the broadcast run. The transfer is an anamorphic widescreen that looks nice, and the accompanying stereo soundtrack is lively and offers a nice punch out of two speakers. Extras are limited to excised scenes from five of the eight episodes. I was hoping for commentaries or featurettes to give us the story of the series, or reactions to the cancellation. The bonus is we can finally see the full run of the show, or at least what was shot. With such a convoluted plot, the extra four episodes hardly wrap up all the story lines. In fact, the extra episodes only serve to introduce more storylines. Yet for the faithful, this is a nice set to own.
The Book of Daniel was a strange concept for network television, and like most bold experiments it was duly canceled after only four episodes. The Book of Daniel—The Complete Series will look right at home next to your other collections of brilliant canceled shows, and offers the chance to see four more episodes the rest of America and the AFA decided it never wanted to see. The show is not offensive other than it has a dysfunctional priest talking to Jesus, but even that convention is executed gently enough to seem at home on television. The real problem the show faced was this—it was daring enough to offend conservatives, yet not original and strong enough to attract the liberals. The plots seem overly eager to mine the territory created by Six Feet Under, and also strives to create a religiously themed dark comedy that hardly needed the watering down of a major network. Still, the show is smartly acted by a stellar cast and well worth a look for that reason alone. It's better than 90% of the television programming currently on the air. That in itself is a miracle.
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• Deleted Scenes From Five Episodes
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